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A trillion computers in a drop of water: Scientists build a nanoscale computing machine using biological molecules

Rehovot, Israel -- A group of scientists headed by Prof. Ehud Shapiro at the Weizmann Institute of Science has used biological molecules to create a tiny computer a programmable two-state, two-symbol finite automaton in a test tube.

Reported today in Nature, this biological nanocomputer is so small that a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) such computers co-exist and compute in parallel, in a drop the size of 1/10 of a milliliter of watery solution held at room temperature.

Collectively, the computers perform a billion operations per second with greater than 99.8% accuracy per operation while requiring less than a billionth of a Watt of power. This study may lead to future computers that can operate within the human body, interacting with its biochemical environment to yield far-reaching biological and pharmaceutical applications.

The computers input, output, and software are made up of DNA molecules. For hardware, the computer uses two naturally occurring enzymes that manipulate DNA. When mixed together in solution, the software and hardware molecules operate in harmony on the input molecule to create the output molecule, forming a simple mathematical computing machine, known as finite automaton.

This nanocomputer can be programmed to perform simple tasks by choosing different software molecules to be mixed in solution. For instance, it can detect whether, in an input molecule encoding a list made of 0s and 1s, all the 0s precede all the 1s.

The living cell contains incredible molecular machines that manipulate information-encoding molecules such as DNA and RNA in ways that are fundamentally very similar to computation, says Prof. Shapiro of the Institutes Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department and the Biological Chemistry Department. Since we dont know how to effectively modify these machines or create new ones just yet, the trick is to find naturally existing machines that, when combined, can be steered to actually
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Contact: Jeffrey Sussman
jeffrey@acwis.org
212-895-7951
American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science
21-Nov-2001


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